His Honor’s House (continued)

My newspaper research into the history of our house was haphazard. On occasion, when I was through with some project on the computer and I had nothing else I needed or wanted to do, I would log on to a newspaper data base, put our address into the query box, and enter a time frame. Things came up that held some interest or amusement for me. For example: On February 20, 1951, Mrs. Mildred Thompson, 63, of our address was hit by a car crossing a nearby street. Then while being taken to a hospital, her ambulance collided with a car. I could find no subsequent report of how Mildred fared from the two accidents. While this made me think of dark jokes or a children’s book, I was finding nothing that gave me any new meaningful insight into the house or its inhabitants, nothing that inspired me to undertake some sort of sustained research that would inspire my next book. On the other hand, I found a couple entries that I thought could be the seeds for some old-fashioned short stories, if I had any ability to write such a thing.

For example, there was a longish obituary of Mortimer L. Goff published on October 11, 1896, that stated that “twenty-five years ago the deceased was one of the only seven professional tea tasters in the United States” and that all the large tea importers sought his opinion. Although he was living elsewhere when he died, the Brooklyn Eagle reported, “Mr. Goff built a residence at (our address), and his garden in front of his home was of special interest to Brooklynites by reason of its choice plants and flowers, among which was the only tea plant imported from China up to that date.” I went to the front window and tried to visualize this, but it was hard. Although the tiny space between the house and the sidewalk once had four square feet of soil where a tree grew, a luxuriant garden was hard to imagine. There always had to have been access to the door under the stoop leaving only a small planting space that would not have gotten sunlight after midday. But the thought of a rare tea plant outside the door was intriguing.

I thought, however, that Goff’s jactation could place him in a humorous short story. He seems to have taken credit, unsupported by anything more than his word, for both the founding of a great commercial empire and for innovative military tactics. The obit said that as a young man, Goff was about to open “an extensive retail tea and coffee establishment” but it was destroyed in a widespread fire before it opened. Goff said that the nascent business was uninsured and never got underway because of the losses. However, according to him, several years later he told “a New York capitalist” about his ideas for a chain of coffee and tea stores and this led to the formation of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Furthermore, Goff took credit for the origination of Thea-Nector package tea, a signature product of the early A & P company. However, no corroboration for these claims was given, and while I have only done minor research on the founding of A & P, I could not find even the merest mention of Mortimer.

  Goff also said that during Civil War, he wrote to General McClellan about using balloons to bomb troops in battle “but received no reply.” However, within a week of mailing his letter, Goff stated that news reports indicated that balloons had been used by Union troops in a “decided victory.” The obituary stated: “The deceased Brooklynite had maintained up to the day of his death that he was the first person to suggest this application of the balloon.”

While I find humor in the unconfirmed boasting, perhaps it was really just sad. Goff apparently had some sort of mental illness. The obit stated that although Goff had only been recently confined to his home on Prospect Park a mile or two from my house, he had been an invalid for the last nineteen years. “His long ill health and final death (at 65) are indirectly attributed to a nervous disorder brought on by sampling tea.” Sampling tea made him an invalid? I don’t think Lipton wants to hear about this. But come on, that is at least sort of funny. Perhaps a reincarnated James Thurber could make something of this.

The story, however, also revealed to me some of the problems of being an amateur, very part-time historian. The obituary gave the present address of our house, but an obituary from thirty years earlier on January 7, 1864, reported the death of Susan Goff, whom I assume was a relative of Mortimer’s. It said the funeral would be at her residence and gave the address of our house. However, even if Goff did build a house with our address, it’s clear that Samuel Booth built ours in the 1870s. Confused, I did some digging and found that Brooklyn street numberings changed several times in that era. Goff’s residence and ours are not the same building.

However, Charles Glatz did own our building, and he was a supporting character in a drama that could have made a story or play.

(continued January 10)